July/August 2011
Frances Cha

Korean Idol

The Highly Structured World of Kpop and Its Fandom

Kpop—a certain Asia-enveloping strain of contemporary Korean pop music—is characterized by upbeat, hook-heavy songs and teary ballads, performed by highly choreographed boy bands and girl groups whose members generally range in age from fourteen to twenty-three. The most prominent of these are known as “idols.” They are the source of traffic jams and barricades in Seoul as they move from place to place. When they travel, legions of fans swamp airports, from Japan’s Narita to New York’s JFK, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols; indeed, some devotees fly into these airports just for these brief moments.

But Kpop fandom has its stalkerish element. Jaejoong, a Kpop idol who resembles a manga protagonist, recently took to tweeting against sasaeng (short for “private-life fans”), the most crazed of fans, who shadow him relentlessly, whether it’s on his daily trip to the hair salon or a vacation to Tahiti. Such microscopic attention is made possible by the so-called “sasaeng cabbies, ” who cruise around Seoul trying to spot the idols’ cars, tipping off the sasaeng in exchange for cold hard cash.

The sasaeng, naturally, are also diligent recorders, with thousands of blogs dedicated to their idols’ whereabouts. These sites are updated daily, sometimes hourly, albeit in code. For example, a post reading “Exit palace. G R O K. 85. What did I tell you? Kekekeke. Enter palace” means that the idol left his house, went to a karaoke bar in a car with a license plate ending in 85, and is now back at home. “Kekekeke” is meant to mimic laughter.

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Frances Cha is the Seoul editor of CNNGo, the entertainment, travel, and lifestyle division of CNN. She teaches creative writing at Yonsei University.

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